Not in front of the British

A major show that places women artists of the 20th century alongside men and deals unequivocally with sex: it's no surprise that you can't see it here. By Louisa Buck; 'Feminin-Masculin' is a massive, over-ambitous orgy of an exhibition. It stands as a challenge to both artistic and sexual stereotyping. It avoids moral judgements and focuses on work that is explicit and transgressive

The relationship between sex and art is as old as art itself. And, up until the beginning of this century, this has meant an art dominated by male desire, with the female invariably at the receiving end of the paintbrush. "It is with my brush that I make love," declared Paul Renoir. "Art is vice, you don't marry it legitimately, you rape it," stated the steely-eyed Degas. While Picasso promoted himself as the prime painter- penetrator, the man who put the trop into heterosexual, harnessing his powers of invention to his libido and, when his libido began to flag, punctuating his work with ever more audacious couplings and visual-genital puns.

Meanwhile, along comes the urbane maverick Marcel Duchamp, who puts himself in opposition to this time- honoured status quo by presenting art as a matter of selection, the sexual act as a dysfunctional machine and himself, the artist, in bad-drag alter ego as Rrose Selavy. Fuelled by Freud, fanned by Surrealism, the gender genie is now out of the bottle, and sex becomes the Big Theme of 20th- century art, to be depicted, dissected and transgressed - the key to our identity and the curse of our existence. By the time we arrive at the Aids-poisoned playground of the 1990s, no sexual stone has been left artistically unturned, traditional divisions and categories no longer apply, and difference has become dynamic rather than divisive.

This, at least, is the thesis laid out in "Feminin-Masculin: Le sexe de l'art", the Pompidou Centre's mammoth artistic sexathon which reverses Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 movie title to put the girls on top and to negotiate the sex-steeped art of the 20th century. In keeping with the show's claim that modern artists have challenged conventions of sex and gender, old- style considerations of chronology or artistic category are jettisoned in favour of five sections (or "sexions", as the organisers embarrassingly call them) which chart an appropriately fluid, ambiguous course through the 500 or so exhibits, grouping them together according to similar or sympathetic preoccupations.

This results in some strange alliances. In the "Origin of the World" genital zone, for example, Claes Oldenburg's fabric light plug wilts before Anish Kapoor's stony void; Duchamp as the fictional Rrose along with his moustachioed Mona Lisa preside over a riot of "Identities and Masquerades"; and over in "Natural Histories" Georgia O'Keeffe is joined by Gilbert & George. Meanwhile, in the section devoted to "Attractions and Repulsions" the comings and goings span Duchamp, Francis Picabia and Rebecca Horn's sex machines through to Picasso's savage couplings and Bruce Nauman's video of escalating domestic violence; while amid the peeping and prying in "Stories of the Eye", power structures are scrambled when the elegant paedophile fantasies of Hans Belmer are confronted by the psychodrama of Eric Fischl's incestuous painting Birthday Boy.

However, Georges Bataille was right when he said that "eroticism always entails a breaking-down of established patterns", and the most powerful pieces in this show leap out of even these flexi-categories to transcend gender and agenda. The elegantly impotent mechanistic couplings in Marcel Duchamp's Bride stripped by her bachelors, or Helen Chadwick's knobbly bronze Piss Flowers, with their stamens made from casting female piss holes in the snow, would be at home in any part of "Feminin-Masculin", as would Louise Bourgeois's sleek, squatting, multi-breasted wolverine Nature study, which taps into a universal and androgynous eroticism that claims no specific artistic constituency.

Things have certainly moved on since the last full-scale attempt to take stock of the relations between art and sex. EROS, the "exposition intERnatiOnale du Surrealisme", held in Paris at the Daniel Cordier Gallery in 1959-60, was an attempt to investigate the theme of Eros (love), described by the exhibition organisers Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp as "mankind's greatest mystery". In the same way that the Surrealist round-table "Inquiries on Sexuality" some 30 years before had almost completely excluded women, so in EROS women were relegated to muse status, from the cavorting painted nuns of Clovis Trouille, to the room with a trembling pink-satin ceiling and "vaginal door" leading to a corridor filled with moans and ending in a red chamber containing a cannibalistic feast.

"Feminin-Masculin" puts the record straight by representing Surrealist art in a context that accords equal status to other desires and sensibilities. The result is a re-invigoration of some of this century's most familiar icons - although the absence of a major Salvador Dali is a glaring omission. Now Magritte's bare-faced Le Viol and Meret Oppenheim's fur teacup and saucer can share a transgressively hairy moment with Jana Sterbak's chest- wig nightgown and Robert Gober's hermaphrodite wax pillow-torso; and Man Ray's phallic image of Lee Miller's neck can sit beside Annette Messager's photograph of a hefty penis which, with a few judicious strokes of a marker pen, has been transformed into a perky pussycat.

Not only in the title of this show is the feminine reasserted. Nancy Spero has painted goddesses, angels and heroines directly on to the perspex membrane of the Pompidou's escalators so that the panorama of Paris, the city viewed by the Surrealists as an outstretched female body complete with erogenous zones, now falls away beneath the soaring images of Josephine Baker, Isis et al.

Back on the gallery floor, Allen Jones's S&M slavette (who, in true art- historical tradition acts as a base for a palette-shaped table) is given rightful status as a piece of knowing, pneumatic kitsch by her proximity to Sylvie Fleury's First Spaceship on Venus, where vast, thrusting toy rockets poke through a wall of vivid green fun-fur.

Taking over from Surrealism's Sadean fantasies, Abstract Expressionism's angst and Pop's pin-ups, women appear to be upping the sexual ante. There is the brazen obscenity of Cindy Sherman's hermaphrodite dummy, consisting of two conjoined trunks ending in livid genitals topped off with cock ring and tampon string, or Sue Williams's savage monument to battered women where a prone, bruised figure is covered in crudely painted cliches explaining her swollen eye and kick marks. Three new wall-pieces by Cathy de Monchaux are lethal extravaganzas of spiky metal ornament and fleshy folded leather, sprung like traps and clogged with poisonous-looking powder, which bristle with association and innuendo and take up beauty as a bait and a defence.

In this ambiguous realm of pain and pleasure, if one figure emerges as the presiding genius over the new order conjured up by "Feminin-Masculin", it is not Marcel Duchamp or Pablo Picasso but the 84-year-old French-American Louise Bourgeois. The exhibition opens with her massive Twosome, in which giant black steel cylinders laboriously dock and separate, shunting along rails to the accompaniment of flashing red lights; and throughout the exhibition instinct and intellect are made to combine in the almost overwhelming physical presence of her works, ranging from the hand-sized bronze Janus Fleuri, which dangles ominously overhead like a hermaphrodite boomerang, a wall-relief of pink latex breasts-cum-polyps, or the room-within-a-room cylindrical lair containing racks of alchemical glass containers devoted to Precious Liquids.

"Feminin-Masculin" is a massive, overambitious orgy of an exhibition which still has some glaring omissions. Surely no survey of sex and art could ignore the unholy alliance between Jeff Koons and La Cicciolina? But it stands as a crucial challenge to both artistic and sexual stereotyping. It avoids moral judgements and deliberately (some may say, excessively) focuses on work that is explicit and transgressive. It could therefore never be seen in this country. Even the current Turner Prize exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London carries a warning sign that some exhibits (Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided? Mark Wallinger's Royal Ascot videos of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh?) may be unsuitable for children.

At "Feminin-Masculin" there was no such anxiety among the parents and children wandering round the show. When asked if she expected any trouble from the press or the public, the Pompidou's press officer looked blank: "But this is an art show." If only we could be as mature about sex in art on this side of the Channel.

n 'Feminin-Masculin' is at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris to 12 Feb 1996 (00 331 447 81233)

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?